Article

How low can you go?

The government would certainly like our alcohol and calorie consumption to be lower, but what is the trade doing about it? And more to the point, is it working? Richard Woodard takes a look at the lighter side of life


Calorie counts, ‘traffic light’ nutritional information, sugar and salt intake guidance… ‘Zero’ soft drinks, skinny lattes and your ‘five a day’. We live in a world that appears to take more concern over our waistlines, the width of our arteries and the state of our livers than ever before. Now that the health war has all but moved on from the siege on tobacco, the world of food and drink is the new battleground.

What makes ‘healthy alcohol’ – and yes, in many ways that is a contradiction in terms – a highly confusing area for on-trade operators is this: how do you exploit a phenomenon which has its origins not so much in consumer-inspired demand as in government-driven social policy? In other words, you may feel that you should be offering lower-alcohol, lower-calorie alternatives on your drinks list – but do the punters want it, and, at the end of the day, can you make money out of it?

To add to the problem, it’s a very different story for individual drinks categories. While there seems to be an identifiable trend towards ‘skinny’ or low-calorie cocktails, and also – to a lesser extent – towards lower-abv beers, the situation with wine is far less clear-cut. So let’s look briefly at each in turn.

Cocktails

‘We launched our skinny range of cocktails at the beginning of 2010 and since then the demand has grown and grown,’ reports Taskin Muzaffer, operations manager at Drake & Morgan, whose latest bar opening, The Drift in London’s Heron Tower, has made great play of its impressive range of waistline-friendly drinks.

It has worked, either because the company’s timing was spot-on, or because – by drawing attention to these drinks – it has sparked consumer interest and driven demand. ‘We’ve seen the interest rise in the demand for lower-calorie drinks over the past year-and-a-half since we launched our skinny range of cocktails,’ Muzaffer says. ‘We’ve also seen our salad sales spike to new heights, indicating more of our customers favour lighter lunch options too.’

This collision of food and drink offer has proved a happy one, but the demand isn’t exclusively driven by diet-conscious female customers. ‘Our statistics show that women are primarily the main consumers of lower-calorie drinks; however, men aren’t far behind,’ reports Muzaffer. ‘It’s really not as stereotypical as you might imagine.’

There’s been a more cautious response to the issue at successful cocktail bar chain Be At One, but one much more directly driven by customer demand.

‘We used guest forums to ascertain exactly what it was that our guests wanted going into their cocktails,’ says Sarah Swaysland, communications manager. ‘We found that they’re very particular about the ingredients in their drinks; so, when we revamped our menu, we bore this in mind by introducing more fresh fruits and juices.’

Swaysland points to the example of major chains like Harvester and Starbucks displaying calories on their menus. ‘It was almost inevitable that the question of calories would arise with regard to the bar industry,’ she argues. ‘The feedback from our new menu was very positive, so with this in mind, we will be including several skinny drinks with a calorie count when we launch our winter menu in late October. And in January we are planning to introduce a full, calorie-conscious menu again.’

Beer

The drive towards lower-abv, lighter ales may at least partly be a knock-on effect of the new golden age of micro-brewing in the UK, if the experience of Camille Hobby-Limon, owner of The Charles Lamb pub in London, is anything to go by.

‘There is more demand for decent session beers,’ she reports. ‘Newer micro-breweries seem to be catching on to this, with Redemption making a 3% hoppy ale called Trinity, while Dark Star have 3.8% Hophead, and Brodies have 3.1% Citra, sitting alongside a variety of others that
go up to 8% abv.

‘Our most popular beers are of the lower-abv variety, and therefore we order more of them. You may pay more and charge more for the higher abvs, but you aren’t going to be able to drink them all night, and I think most people come to our pub for a few beers, not one strong beer.’

Indeed, the phenomenon may even be driving a larger-scale category switch among the pub’s customers. ‘It’s as acceptable to drink an ale at lunchtime as it is a glass of wine, but we are seeing an increasing number of men and women choosing ale over wine now,’ Hobby-Limon adds. ‘Maybe it’s our range, however our selection has only improved with the demand and the growing amount of
great local breweries popping up.’

Wine

Moving onto wine, the discussion here is very much about abv rather than calorie count, since a wine that is lower in alcohol is not necessarily lighter in calorie terms, particularly if that lower strength is achieved by extra sweetness in the form of unfermented sugar.

There’s a feeling that suppliers are in a bit of a cleft stick here: WaverleyTBS has tinkered with highlighting ‘lower alcohol’ (ie 5-11% abv) wines before, but delisted them when they didn’t sell. Now wine development manager Nick Gough has put them back on the agenda; but more because of the social-responsibility issue than due to any identifiable consumer demand.

On the face of it, that’s a concern: a business that tailors its offer to keep government rather than consumers happy would seem to be onto a loser – but, as Gough says, it’s not that simple.

‘At tastings, when we put these [sweeter, lower alcohol] wines in front of people, they really like them,’ he points out. ‘It’s no surprise when you think that people used to love Liebfraumilch, and rosé was led by California blush.’ The modern equivalent might be, for instance, Gallo Summer Red – a sweetish, light and fruity red wine designed to be consumed chilled or over ice.

The problem is that, in Gough’s words, in many cases people ‘don’t have the confidence’ to buy these wines – they are dissuaded by snobbery from following their natural taste for lighter, sweeter wines.
‘We have to convince them that it will work for them,’ he argues. ‘It’s a horse to water situation...

People in the trade and in the know understand and appreciate these wines for what they are, but there’s a snobbery among less knowledgeable consumers who don’t like to be seen drinking what they might call a “girly” type of wine.’

In other words, the latent consumer appetite is there, but the tricky bit is working out how to tap into that and convince people to follow their natural instincts. And whether at the moment that is a job for the pubs and bars of Britain is very much open to question.

‘We are aware that the US market is beginning to buy Riesling and Moscato,’ Gough says. ‘It’s just a question of these trends being picked up by the UK consumer. But it really isn’t the on-trade that drives that. It’s the off-trade.

‘What we intend to do this year is to choose all the wines at 5-11% abv and feature them separately in our main portfolio as naturally low alcohol wines. We’ll also make sure that all our salespeople are aware of that. Whether the consumer then buys into it is another matter. There is still the mentality that the higher the alcohol, the better the wine – and that’s what a lot of consumers look for.’


Case study: Martini and the Return of the Spritz

If anyone’s capable of simultaneously targeting health-conscious drinkers and surfing a resurgent wave of 1970s nostalgia, it’s Martini vermouth and that bastion of yesteryear suburban pub drinking, the spritz.

As signature serves go, it’s certainly simple, combining 70ml of Martini Bianco or Rosato with ice, soda water and citrus fruit – but, in these post-millennial, wine-literate days, the highball glass has been eschewed in favour of a good-sized wine glass.

Martini says the serve helped it to post 14% growth in London on-trade sales earlier this year (CGA figures, 12 months to 22 January 2011), and the combination of alcohol and mixer is certainly an attractive one in terms of GP.

But what of the calorie and alcohol count in the drink? According to Martini, a 170ml Martini Spritz contains 105 calories and one unit of alcohol, compared to your average glass of white wine, which has 135 calories and 2.3 units.

In terms of pricing, the company suggests an RSP for a 70ml measure roughly equivalent to that of a 35ml spirit measure (thus 50ml Martini = 25ml spirit), making the RSP of a Martini Spritz lower than that of a glass of wine, since it is topped up with soda.

Beyond the numbers, Martini is highlighting ‘sharing’ – buying a jug for a group of friends – and its food-friendly credentials, which, it says, rival those of ‘regular’ wine.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – November/December 2011

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